Updating Your Ugly and Out-of-Date 404 Error Pages

A 404 Error Page is what a visitor sees (or should see) when they land on a page that is no longer there. Some links go bad over time because products get removed, or content gets deleted. Or maybe there are changes in the permalink structure, or gremlins ate the page. It can happen. It DOES happen. 

And there was a time when your 404 Error page could say anything or nothing at all.  

But it’s time to wake up because 1995 is long gone. 

If you’re still using bland, boring, dead-end 404 Error pages, then you’re losing readers.  

That’s right – if someone lands on your 404 and it’s a dead-end, you may as well put up a sign that says, “Go away, we don’t want you here!” 

I’m not saying you have to get all creative and artsy-fartsy unless you want to. I love it when I see creativity and humor on a 404. But there are 3 things your 404 pages MUST do, regardless of whether or not it induces a smile or even a laugh. 

1: This one is so basic I can’t believe I have to state it, but here goes: HAVE A 404 PAGE. Please. 

Don’t redirect to a category page or homepage or a whatever page. It’s so darn confusing for a visitor to think they’re going one place and end up someplace else.  

If Bob thinks he’s going to the page with the article about the icon of his favorite sport and he winds up back at the homepage, he’s not going to be happy. 

It’s like opening the door marked “Men’s Bathroom” in a restaurant and finding yourself back at the front entrance. What the heck just happened? You don’t know, but you’re pretty sure you don’t like it, and you’re going to find a restaurant that doesn’t play weird tricks on you.  

2: Your website’s navigation MUST be available on your 404. 

This is not negotiable. While you want to have a message that indicts the person is in the wrong place, lost, or simply took a wrong turn, you also want to give them options for getting the heck out of there.  

Go to nytimes.com/qwerty, and you’ll get a page that says, “Page Not Found. We’re sorry, we seem to have lost this page, but we don’t want to lose you.” This is followed by a search bar (Search NYTimes.com) and several choices for Most Emailed stories and Top News.  

I like how they take credit for losing the page; even though it’s not their fault, I typed in a bogus link. And I love how they say they ‘don’t want to lose you.’  

3: Make it abundantly clear that this is a 404 error page. Have you ever stumbled on a 404 error page that was trying to HIDE the fact that it’s a 404? There’s a menu, navigation, or some other content that you didn’t expect to see, and then in tiny writing near the bottom, you see, “Page Not Found.”  

Oh, well, thank you very much for FINALLY letting me know! It’s like driving the wrong way down a one-way street and wondering why ALL of the cars are going the other way and honking furiously at you. Maybe they should put up a SIGN you can SEE that says you’re going the wrong way. 


Okay, here’s my BEST 404 Error Page tip – are you ready? 

Easter Egg! 

That’s right, turn your 404 Error Page into the ultimate Easter Egg for your lucky visitors. 

You might say something like, “Uh-oh, this page was not found but guess what? You’ve stumbled upon our most secret of treasures. This (whatever it is… lead magnet, video, report, etc.) is so special. We do NOT allow just anybody to have it. In fact, before today, ONLY 12 people have ever been lucky enough to discover this top-secret stash, making you the 13th person on the planet to get access!” 

Change the wording to fit your brand. The idea is since they landed on a 404, which generally is not the right place to land, you are going to turn the experience into something great for them. Yes, you can ask their email in exchange for it. How else will you send it to them, right? 

Or have a crazy, fun 30-second video. Or do something wild. Consider your niche, be consistent with your branding, and then come up with something off the wall but appropriate. 

And yes, don’t be surprised if your 404 goes viral when you do this. Just make sure that whatever the Easter Egg is, it’s FANTASTIC. 

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